A Subversive Aesthetic



Threadbare: a Subversive Aesthetic

by Tara Burk and Keith Miller

Each generation is bound by their particular epoch, their language and meanings determined by historical, social, economic and political placement. To strive towards a universal means of communication, one that will outlast the specificity of time and place, is a motivation that has shaped artistic productions over centuries. It is, perhaps, through specificity of meaning that generations might speak to each other, across periods, across ideologies, and across stable and fixed meanings.


Threadbare: a Subversive Aesthetic, an exhibition in celebration of Women’s History month, features artistic productions by women in textiles, fabrics, thread and cloth made over three distinct "waves" during a roughly hundred-year period.  This exhibition provides the context for a dialogue among women who have worked with the aforementioned media whose work provokes discussions across ideological and generational lines. The exhibition of artworks conceived and produced across generations in the parlance of specific social and political atmospheres presents the opportunity to articulate and create context for diverse assertions of identity and aesthetics through a commonality in materials.


The quilts produced by African-Americans in the early 20th century exhibited here are aesthetically beautiful art objects. Quilting, an activity that allowed for the creation of women-only spaces within extended communities, established contexts for intellectual dialogue among women and the opportunity for communal artistic production. The works of Ada Cook Owens and Daisy Adams Stroud are the starting points, historically and formally, of the fabric-based tradition explored in this show. These works made from cloth scraps and swatches ordered from catalogues, were intended as practical objects.  African American women produced them in the decades succeeding the Civil War, during a period of institutionalized racism.  Quilting circles provided extended families with "safe" social spaces and a venue for artistic and functional production. Today, these works are family heirlooms; one must understand the context in which they were produced to fully appreciate the process in which utilitarian objects were transformed into visually complex artworks.


Working with materials pejoratively designated as the realm of "women’s work," artists such as Harmony Hammond, Judy Chicago, Faith Ringgold and Miriam Schapiro organized during the 1970s within the Feminist Art Movement to produce artworks that, because of the materials used, became inherently politicized aesthetic objects. The use of textiles by these artists challenged fundamental assumptions of art historical discourse (as to what constitutes "high art") and paved the way for an explosive increase in media, which led to subsequent acceptance of such media (textiles and thread, performance art, body art, video and electronic media) within art criticism discourse. It is interesting that a call to the past helped to ensure a visual future less constricted by static categories of "high" and "low" art. The emerging field of feminist art criticism that accompanied the movement, as well as feminist art activism that protested the unequal ratio of male and female artists represented by galleries and shown in museums, marked the late 1960s and 1970s as a period when the "art world" rapidly became politicized.

Today, as a result of the Feminist Art Movement, materials that fall into the realm of "thread" are artistically legitimate and retain a connotation of historical and political gravity. Contemporary artists working with textiles and thread extend this historic traditional of political and cultural subversion, often as the articulation of personal narratives. The multiplicity of voices transmitted through narrative, the endless possibilities of the application of these media, and the dynamic nature of artistic production itself negate the possibility of collapsing all women working within these media to a unified standpoint. They are working within a medium centuries old, part of a historical tradition that constantly shifts to accommodate new application (for example, the aestheticization of quilts in the late 20th century.) Their unity is in material, not ideology.


For the artists who came of age artistically after the Feminist Art Movement, the role of material and its relation to the political is complex. Many artists working today assert their politics through content rather than material, although their work acknowledges and engages on some level with the historical potency and politicization of  "thread" materials.


In the work of Berty Skuber it is clear her appropriation of a quilt format has departed from any utilitarian intention. Instead of found patches sewn together to create a functional object, she has taken corporate clothing and product brand-name labels, pieced and sewn them together to create new contexts entirely. Her brand-name conglomerations are visually lively and require close inspection to attend to all details. The labels, varied in shape and color, create a rhythmic visual experience that references the aesthetic pleasure of quilts.

Nava Lubelski forges an alliance between the gendered construction of abstract expressionism and the sewn thread. Her use of the "feminine" stitch as gesture simultaneously signals and challenges notions of aggressiveness and hyper-masculinity so often tied to the first generation of abstract expressionists. Her spontaneously methodical canvases set up formal tension between material and gesture, as contained and precise stitching drips down the canvas, or explodes and spreads out in random splotches. A parallel tension exists in the simultaneous references signaled, between the historically collective production of  "women’s work" and the modernist notion of artist as heroic genius.

Johanna Bartelt’s soft heart-sized houses seem to evoke an invitation but deny entry. Their delicacy lies both in their size and their material (the felt blanket swatches seem almost organic.) Bartelt’s work initiates a dialogue with viewers as to the cultural and historical meanings associated with "home." Her use of materials, form and the soft pinkish colors, raise questions as to women’s (historic) relationship to the home. 

Johanna Unzueta’s felt sculpture seems to signal a theme of political geography and its implications.  For Johanna Unzueta urban architecture is transformed into adornment. To be worn and modeled, these sculpture-hats offer little protection from the elements and disregard the function of hats, as they are commonly known. Instead they transform the individual into the modern landscape; paradoxically it is within the corporate urban landscape that the individual is negated, transformed from subject to consumer.  Her photographs take up the relationship between body and sculpture, which involves a similar process of negation. 

Lesley Dill's hand sculptures are outstretched and yearning, beckoning viewers to approach. They invite supplications that signal internal emotions as well as material realities. Suzanne Goldenberg's repetitive imagery comments on the chaos of isolation.  A single figure, mechanically repeated through each work, walks or stands on a field of color. It is here, within the field of color that consumes or supports the figure that Goldenberg tries to encompass the experience of completeness or complete emptiness, moments definitive of contemporary experience.

As testament and celebration of an idea Threadbare: A Subversive Aesthetic represents but a slight minority of the work being done and that has been done in "thread" throughout the last 100 years. It is within this tradition, now flourishing alongside the previously recognized great works of our time, that it can be seen that the continuity of engagement, whether politically or personally engaged, remains alive and well.